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About to turn the corner?

May 13, 2013

THE mandate couldn’t have been clearer. That doesn’t mean it is any less daunting than an ambiguous one would have been.

Nawaz Sharif’s tenacity is remarkable. As he stood on that balcony of the PML-N headquarters, making his victory speech in the small hours of Sunday, images of the troubled face of the deposed prime minister outside that Karachi anti-terrorism court in 1999 must have flashed before many eyes.

He’ll quickly need to analyse the countrywide election result and what it means for him and more importantly for the country that, during his campaign, he repeatedly pledged to rebuild, to pull out of the morass.

So what does the verdict tell us? First and foremost that the PML-N may have earned the unambiguous right to rule the country and Punjab but that the party will have to accommodate those whose ambitions it crushed as it captured the biggest crown.

This is the nature of the verdict. The PML-N leader often complained that following the 2008 elections, the PPP reneged on the Charter of Democracy the two parties had signed in London in 2006. Now it has the opportunity to implement it unilaterally — if only as a tribute to Benazir Bhutto, whose insistence made Sharif contest the last elections, enabling his party to lead the Punjab government. For the PML-N’s brand of politics, this was the only launch-pad for the sort of win the party has seen in the province this time.

The triumphant party will need to coexist with the PPP-led Sindh government. If it has to have any hope of reviving the struggling economy, a live-and-let-live policy is the only way forward as further acrimony can only deliver lethal shocks to the system and set adrift the federating units.

Equally, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf should be asked to put together a government in KP as it has emerged as the largest single party there. Any attempt to put a Rest of the World XI can only erode the democrat’s image built up patiently by Nawaz Sharif over the past five years.

Most of all, all eyes will be on Nawaz Sharif to assess if he is really the mature statesman his supporters claim he has become during his days in the political wilderness and no longer the man who once aspired to become the Islamic republic’s all-powerful amirul momineen.

We all know the major challenges: terrorism, lawlessness, economy, power cuts. But there are more nuanced threats too. He has close friends in the Gulf but that shouldn’t prevent him from assessing if tyranny of a particular ideology is best suited to Pakistani culture.

Culture does evolve but this isn’t an issue of culture alone. Many believe this ideology is actually inimical to the country’s existence as it threatens to tear it apart. Many proxy battles have been fought on this soil. It is time to end all that.

This has to be done in concert with the country’s military and who better than a leader with near-unanimous backing from Punjab to do it. His last falling out with the military must inform the manner in which he engages GHQ, but engage he must.

Regional peace and stability are a prerequisite for Pakistan to prosper. The prime minister-to-be, being a business-industrial tycoon, must know this better than anyone else. The earlier on in his tenure the tone is set the better.

His recent interviews such as the one given to Dawn’s Cyril Almeida, showed he has not only thought about these issues more than other leaders but has also a firm idea on how to proceed. This can only be good.

However, he will be tested early because matters such as government formation in strife-torn Balochistan are heading straight at him and their resolution will almost set the theme for how he plans to proceed. The delay in results such as those for nationalist Akhtar Mengal’s Balochistan National Party (BNP-M) is causing anxiety as we speak.

The extent of Sharif’s win may have surprised the city-centric media and its often partisan pundits but there can be no doubt it owed itself considerably to how the party’s governance was perceived by the electorate. Traditional patronage may have informed its politics but corruption was not rampant.

By contrast, the PPP can only have itself to blame. Poor governance, widespread allegations of corruption and then an arrogant resort to slogans based on ideology and sacrifices when both were things of the past. Whose fault is it other than Asif Zardari’s that there was no national campaign leader?

This isn’t to say the party is dead and buried. But it well may be without serious soul-searching, rediscovering its ideological moorings and a conscious attempt to reconnect with the jiyala support base. Its choice of Sindh chief minister and how it governs will indicate whether it can rise phoenix-like.

The media may have over-egged the PTI pudding but Imran Khan’s energetic campaign and appeal to a totally new set of voters — a colleague called them the non-voters — can only be seen as one remarkable aspect of these elections, almost a game changer. What Bhutto did for the dispossessed, he did for the educated urban middle class and the elite; he galvanised them into a vote bank.

He has the chance to lead a ‘model’ government in a province and, depending on its performance, stake a claim to bigger things in the next elections. If he falls a little short of an outright majority and leads a coalition as a senior partner, it’ll be useful political training if a bit humbling.

The challenges are multifold without doubt. But who knows if Pakistan is ready to turn the corner.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.